There's nothing like a classic joke and a good belly laugh to forever put a smile on your face -- and not just on the day that you hear it, but also every day afterwards when it's brought to mind. Whether it's a comedian's routine about the misery of the emergency room or an unforgettable catchphrase about the grocery store: humor makes the mundane almost enjoyable.
That is why, on a long trip of any kind (particularly in an airplane), I recommend a new pastime (especially to those of you who, like me, never end up doing much on the ride despite how many books or projects you brought along). Want to hear it?
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Well, I'm going to tell you anyway. This source of entertainment is not a movie or a television show. No, ladies and gentlemen: today we're going old-school, with a BBC radio sitcom. Think "audio book" meets The Big Bang Theory: it's all dialogue, sound effects, and a live audience dying of laughter. And the particular gem I'm thinking of is a 26-episode series called: Cabin Pressure.
Hogwarts MJN Air, A History
The show features the four staff of a private jet and was written by Britain’s most awarded comedian John Finnemore, who got a lot of his ideas from his aviator brother, David Finnemore. The first season started airing on BBC Radio 4 in 2008, and eventually there were four seasons in total with 26 episodes shared between them. And "zany fun" doesn't even begin to cover how well it went.
The episode names are alphabetically organized from A to Z, each with the name of a different city that is visited over the course of the story: the first is Abu Dhabi, the middle is a Christmas special in Molokai, and the last is Zurich (which was a two-hour farewell special that aired in December of 2014).
Perhaps one of the major factors in the success of the series was (besides the exceptionally clever writing) the casting: Finnemore not only wrote the saga but also stepped in to play a flaky airline steward that keeps the crowd in stitches… and, in perhaps the most brilliant casting choice of all, Benedict Cumberbatch was brought on to play (arguably) the main character, Captain Martin Crieff. Needless to say, Sherlock fans have a ball with this series... but we'll put the rest of the story about Benedict in the “Appeal” section.
Cabin Pressure follows the exploits, struggles, and all-out shenanigans of four characters trying to manage a small private airline.
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The aging CEO, Carolyn Knapp-Shappey, won the jet from her husband in the divorce and is stubbornly trying to make money with it. Helping her to do so (much in the same way an excited labrador can help drive a car) is her dense adult son, Arthur, who serves the passengers. Flying the plane is Captain Martin Crieff, an uptight pilot who failed his examinations several times before getting his license… and the bane of his existence, smooth-talking First Officer Douglas Richardson, who prefers to bend the rules and make a tidy profit off his peers for a little amusement.
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Cram these four into a pressurized container for a few hours, and you’ll find yourself with enough sarcasm and belly laughter to last for days on end!
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For anyone who has ever enjoyed the humor of the BBC, Cabin Pressure has all of the British cultural references and snark that a customer could want. Those eternally-unanswered questions of life you have, like “What do the pilots really do up there the whole time?” are answered at last. In fact, you’ll likely never forget them.
Every time you enter an airport, you’ll be listening for Arthur’s voice over the intercom; you’ll forever accept Douglas Richardson's explanation for how the town of Ottery St. Mary got its name; and every time you find your seat, you just might be glancing around for the traveling lemon.
But that’s only half of what makes this sitcom amazing. The other half is the cast’s — particularly Benedict Cumberbatch’s — performance. While the world of cinema has typecast Cumberbatch almost entirely into the dark and moody side of the character spectrum, in Cabin Pressure he plays a bumbling, uptight dunce with pinpoint accuracy. If you haven’t seen him in Sherlock or Star Trek Into Darkness, then after listening to Cabin Pressure you would never even know the word ’suave’ could be in the man’s vocabulary. This role shows that he has the most expert comedic timing of anyone to ever take on the title of ‘actor,’ and he’s not afraid to throw winks and nods at his other roles in the BBC.*
* Benedict did have to miss the recording session for “Newcastle”, so the character of Martin was played by Tom Goodman-Hill during that installment. But even then, the episode started with a good gag about the actor switch.
The series is roughly PG, with just a little language to rule out listeners under the age of seven.
Violence: Next to none. For one thing, it’s non-visual. And for another, the most violent thing you hear is one explosion. The characters get into a lot of wild situations, but their lives are rarely in danger. You’ll usually be laughing too hard to get very worried; this is a sitcom, after all.
Sex: Many characters have extensive stories about their countless girlfriends or multiple divorces, but nothing’s handled in a crude manner, really. And when relationships do start sprouting, they’re deliciously complex, which makes them very valuable.
Language: Other than the occasional curses of classy British gentlemen, this show focuses on clean humor for the whole family instead of on childish gags.
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Much in the same way that sitcoms like The Big Bang Theory perform in front of a studio audience, Cabin Pressure was recited with live viewers in the recording session.
It has all the irreverence of Top Gear, the shenanigans of I Love Lucy, and a clever wit all its own. Since there’s not much room for slapstick comedy in a non-visual medium, puns and sarcasm and all-out hilarity are the order of the day. As a result, most of the show’s quotes are entirely outrageous out of context: so half the fun is seeing how the characters got pushed into each scenario and spoke such things aloud.
Moral matters are handled with general amusement, but the show does touch on the pressures of divorce, the difficulty of any relationship remaining permanent, and the challenges of following strict rules when it’s so much easier to gloss over things for one’s own benefit. Not that you’ll notice; you’ll probably be too busy rolling in the aisles.
So is it worth it?
That depends on you. Though I still can barely believe it, apparently not everybody likes Cabin Pressure. My own family is roughly split 50-50 between those who resort to it for any trip (my dad), and those who would prefer to chuck every episode out the window (my mom). According to nay-sayers, they don’t like the British humor or the non-visual aspect of the comedy. To which I say, “But that’s the whole point!”
I guess you’d have to hear an episode or two in order to know for yourself whether you’re a fan of MJN Air or not. When I first heard about the series, I went online and caught a few smatterings on Youtube. I was so hooked that I decided to invest my next few holiday iTunes gift cards in the first season… and since then, I of course ended up buying the entire series, and my father and I haven’t regretted that decision one iota!
If you’re worried about getting caught up… relax. There’s not much to worry about. Each episode is roughly half-an-hour long or less, and there are only twenty-six episodes. (In television terms, it would take the same amount of time as two seasons of a kids’ show.) While it’s not vital that you start from the beginning, I’d probably recommend it since the story of MJN Air gets more and more complicated over the course of the four seasons, culminating in the incredible hijinks in “Zurich”.
And the best thing about Cabin Pressure is that you don’t have to reserve the television or even a computer with internet to spend time enjoying the series. You can take it just about anywhere. Got a long commute to work? A long, boring homeroom class in school? A red-eye flight over the Atlantic where you can’t bring yourself to sleep in that crammed little seat? Stick Cabin Pressure on your iPod… and then prepare to explain your giggles to whoever’s sitting next to you.
And if you’re still on the fence, just give it time. There aren’t necessarily any visual trailers on Youtube, but there are some first-rate clips of typography that feature some cute quotes featuring things like Arthur’s not-so-impressive intellect… or his unquenchable Christmas spirit:
If you’re more of a visual person (like myself), you can take a look at some witty t-shirts. You could try to look at some illustrative fan art, but it’s hard to wade through all the twisted fan art to get to the good stuff (like I have done to spruce up this article for you).
In the end, I’d recommend that you catch a few clips of Cabin Pressure when you can, to try and decide if it’s the sort of series you might like to pass the time on your next trip. And if so, then brace yourself, fasten your seatbelt, and place your tray in the upright and locked position; Cabin Pressure will fly you to new heights of loony euphoria, and so I’d recommend that you hold on to your (very large) hats when it begins… because it’s going to be brilliant.
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